A matter of life and death: The harrowing journey from Cuba to MLB

After the tragic passing of Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, most people became familiar with his harrowing journey to the United States from Cuba. They learned of his three failed attempts to defect before his successful effort on a boat, during which he jumped into dangerous waters to save his mother after she fell out of the boat. It’s a terrifying yet uplifting story that’s wonderful to forever associate with our memory of Fernandez. But it’s not necessarily emblematic of what a majority of Cuban baseball players go through when they try to escape their homeland in hopes of finding a career in Major League Baseball.

The case of Fernandez, despite offering a sneak peek into the journey from Cuba to America, is not typical. His three failed attempts, subsequent jail spells for each, and successful defection all happened when he was a teenager. The experience is much different for baseball players who are established professionals in Cuba and hoping for the chance to make millions in the majors.

Somebody fell out of the boat. I didn’t know who it was. So I jumped into the water and I was trying to get to who it was. And when I got close, I saw it was my mom. I was pretty shocked.

Jose Fernandez

According to MLB rules, a player from Cuba has to establish citizenship in a third country before they can be declared a free agent and sign with a major league club. Otherwise, they would be part of the draft, limiting the size of their contract. So, while most people think of Cuban refugees as making the 90-mile journey from Havana to Miami on a raft, that’s not exactly how it happens. Most baseball players escaping Cuba travel by boat to either Mexico or Haiti.

To make the journey, they risk jail time in Cuba and often put their lives in the hands of criminals who smuggle Cuban refugees for a living. For most refugees, the cost of attempting to defect is anywhere between $500 and $10,000, but for athletes who have the potential to make millions once they arrive in the U.S., the price climbs much higher, often forcing athletes to give up everything they have while also leaving their family behind for a shot at a major league contract.

Even if they manage to leave Cuba and make it to Mexico, the struggle to reach the U.S. has only just begun. Once in Mexico, there is competition for the custody of that player. Shady characters like recently convicted sports agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada come out of the shadows, convincing players that they will be acting as their agent so they can profit when the player signs. At the same time, other dubious characters emerge from the woodwork in hopes of kidnapping the player so that they may turn a profit on the player’s career.

In the case of Yasiel Puig, the Mexican drug cartels who smuggled him from Cuba to Mexico held him for ransom until they were paid by American sports agents for their role in freeing such a talented player from Cuba. His rescuers essentially became his captors, threatening to cut off parts of Puig’s body if they were not paid. Puig needed to be kidnapped by Miami-based criminal Raul Pacheco in order to reach the U.S. and showcase himself for major league teams, and even then, threats poured in from various parties claiming they were owed a chunk of the $42 million contract he signed with the Dodgers.


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When players aren’t being threatened by kidnappers or blackmailed, they are often coerced into signing documents that they don’t understand, as they tend to be written in English and not their native Spanish. The documents may be contracts promising agents sizable chunks of their salary when they sign with a major league team. They could also be forged records of a fake job used to establish residency in Mexico, a common practice during the journey from Cuba to the big leagues. They could even be a fake passport, which was the case with Jose Abreu, who actually ate a passport that included a fake name and fake photo before crossing the U.S. border.

Little by little I swallowed that first page of the passport. I could not arrive in the United States with a false passport.

Jose Abreu

Throughout much of the journey, the players, who are in many ways helpless, go along with whatever they are told because they want so badly to reach the United States and play baseball. Signing on the dotted line with a major league team changes their life forever, and for many, there’s no limit to what they will withstand or what they will risk in making that happen.

The entire process is ugly, illegal, and inhumane. But it’s all done for the love of baseball and the life that baseball can create for players who are willing to risk everything to get their chance in the big leagues.

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